Copernican Economics

By: Michael Ashton | Mon, Apr 2, 2012
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I start the second quarter on the road in beautiful Cincinnati, but I have some time to pen a few thoughts tonight (aside: will our grandchildren even know what it means to "pen" a few thoughts, or will they "pad" them?)

My first thought is that for the second month in a row, commodities ended weakly and then surged on the first day of the new month. Today, despite weak global data - although ISM was slightly stronger-than-expected - industrial metals and energy led the commodity complex higher. This is of course what we expect as the price level rises: microeconomic concerns of supply and demand in individual markets operate on the real clearing price, not the nominal clearing price; this latter should rise with the transactional money supply (though defining that is sometimes problematic) times money velocity. It continues to amaze me that commodities are as weak as they are, but today the DJ-UBS index rose 1.3% and national gasoline prices reached $3.92/gallon (and are still rising).

My second, unrelated, thought concerns the impact that weakening European growth (Fiat sales were -36%!) will have on the global economic crisis, which is assuredly not over and will not be over until the Euro changes membership or disintegrates completely - and, more importantly, on the participation/support of the United States for European sovereigns and institutions.

Until now, the U.S. has wisely remained above the fray (and the fraying); although the Federal Reserve has aided the ECB, the U.S. has pointedly refused to add its heft to the IMF and demurred against providing other aid. I say that this is wise because the European experiment should succeed or fail on its own merits. It does no good for the U.S. to keep alive a failed institution, whether that institution is industrial (as with GM or Chrysler, one of which ought to have failed) or quasi-sovereign (FNMA or FHLMC, at least one of which ought to have failed) or sovereign. On this final point, at least, the Administration has concluded that the costs of involvement far, far outweigh the potential benefits of involvement.

But if the European crisis starts its next unraveling in the next few months, the U.S. will enter the arena with, I think, a large contribution of support. What is a couple hundred billion when an election is at stake? The current "firewall" has barely enough height, once already-committed funds are deducted, to contain a modest campfire. When Portugal and possibly Spain step up to get aid, it will be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't moment for the Administration because both paths are painful. Americans clearly do not want to subsidize European institutions, and so (in contrast to the usual tin ear this government has displayed with respect to the People's wishes) it has been relatively easy to deny the IMF the help it desires. But if there is an election in the offing, and a crisis threatens to burst into bloom in August or September? I believe they will quickly choose to take action they can characterize as "decisive action" to avert the crisis and portray themselves as stewards of global economic health. It isn't clear to me that it will play to the positive for the President's party, but I think given the Hobson's choice they will choose to be involved.

And that might spell the end to the dollar's strength, which is more due to every other developed currency's weakness than to the strength of our own system.

The third, also unrelated, thought concerns St. Louis Fed President Bullard's presentation in China last week, which a friend thoughtfully sent to me. The presentation concerns the question of whether the proper metric for monetary policymakers is not the domestic output gap but the global output gap. See, the problem is that the large domestic output gap is not consistent, as I've pointed out ad nauseum, with the fact that core inflation with or without housing has been accelerating for well over a year in the U.S., Europe, UK, and Japan. Thoughtful policymakers by now should have dispensed with the many-times-discredited notion that output gaps matter to inflation. I said in 2008 that the crisis would be an outstanding test of the two main policy theories: one, that money causes inflation; two, that growth causes inflation. For the first time in many years, money growth and economic growth were moving sharply in opposite directions by meaningful amounts. In the event, it has been a slam-dunk win for the monetarist crowd. More money has meant prices rose, even with a huge output gap. And even with declining money velocity. And even with 40% of the consumption basket, Housing, collapsing from a bubble.

While addressing the question if it's the global output gap, rather than the domestic output gap, that matters (a reasonable question, since we know that something like 65% of domestic inflation comes from common global sources), Bullard's Powerpoint presentation is initially encouraging. When he cites evidence, he includes the clear observation that "One study for Europe found that the global output gap did not appreciably impact Euro-area inflation from 1979-2003," and there are several others. Unfortunately, he then argues that since the global economy is now much more fully integrated, maybe it will have an effect in the future. Indeed, he says "the global output gap idea may be the 'wave of the future' rather than an explanation for past economic outcomes."

It is incredible to me that economists can't bring themselves to simply abandon a theory that has not worked in practice. Not in the 1970s, not in the 2000s, not in Zimbabwe, and so on. They work hard to posit tweaks to the model that can explain the most-recent aberration.

When I was first entering the business, I worked for a company that did technical analysis, and I helped design quant models. One of the greatest sins was to design a model and, the moment it didn't work in real time, to make a new rule to carve out the recent underperformance. If the out-of-sample test doesn't work, you need to question the whole theory, from first principles.

But I'll go further with my analogy. Prior to the development of the heliocentric model of the universe, courtesy of Copernicus, the previous-best theory was that the heavens revolved around the Earth. The problem was that certain observations did not comport well with theory. In particular, astronomers noticed that some stars - dubbed "wanderering stars," the Greek word for which became "planet" - occasionally seemed to reverse course and head in the opposite direction they had previously been observed to travel. This "retrograde motion" clearly did not agree with a model in which all of the stars were fixed on a spherical firmament that rotated around the Earth. So, astronomers did the only thing they could do.

They fudged it.

Astronomers invented the concept of "epicycles." These 'planets,' it seemed, existed on other spheres that rotated in the opposite direction but which were attached to the grand sphere. Epicycles made the theory fit the observations. Of course, it was wholly wrong, and Copernicus in time developed a model that was entirely consistent with observation without needing "epicycles" - simply by noting that if the Sun, rather than the Earth, was the center of the universe then we could observe such phenomena.

President Bullard, abandon this theory. You were so close to saying it! Just say that the theory that output gaps affect nominal prices (as opposed to real prices and exchange rates of the factors of production, which they can reasonably affect) doesn't fit the observations, and be the Copernicus of economists.

None of this has anything to do with market action, but then market action these days has very little to do with anything in the news. Equities will eventually falter, and then the comeuppance could be severe; bonds rallied today but the future is grim aside from occasional flight-to-quality or Fed-frontrunning, and the risks of downside relative to potential upside gains make long duration positions foolhardy. And everyone loses to inflation, which continues to accelerate. These are the trends, although other people would read the trends as being "bullish stocks, bullish bonds, and inflation to fall." I question the prevailing wisdom.



Michael Ashton

Author: Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton, CFA

Michael Ashton

Michael Ashton is Managing Principal at Enduring Investments LLC, a specialty consulting and investment management boutique that offers focused inflation-market expertise. He may be contacted through that site. He is on Twitter at @inflation_guy

Prior to founding Enduring Investments, Mr. Ashton worked as a trader, strategist, and salesman during a 20-year Wall Street career that included tours of duty at Deutsche Bank, Bankers Trust, Barclays Capital, and J.P. Morgan.

Since 2003 he has played an integral role in developing the U.S. inflation derivatives markets and is widely viewed as a premier subject matter expert on inflation products and inflation trading. While at Barclays, he traded the first interbank U.S. CPI swaps. He was primarily responsible for the creation of the CPI Futures contract that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange listed in February 2004 and was the lead market maker for that contract. Mr. Ashton has written extensively about the use of inflation-indexed products for hedging real exposures, including papers and book chapters on "Inflation and Commodities," "The Real-Feel Inflation Rate," "Hedging Post-Retirement Medical Liabilities," and "Liability-Driven Investment For Individuals." He frequently speaks in front of professional and retail audiences, both large and small. He runs the Inflation-Indexed Investing Association.

For many years, Mr. Ashton has written frequent market commentary, sometimes for client distribution and more recently for wider public dissemination. Mr. Ashton received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Trinity University in 1990 and was awarded his CFA charter in 2001.

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